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Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness

By Rajesh C. Oza Email By Rajesh C. Oza
July 2013
Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness

with PostModern Gandhiji (PMG)

An advice column offering the Mahatma’s perspective on modern dilemmas


Dear PMG,

It never ceases to amaze me that we Indians, who value cleanliness in our personalities and homes, are so remarkably uncaring of similar standards for our public places. Filth, it seems, is the norm rather than the exception in most of urban India. And we see that translate to our lives in the States. Whether we go to Indian restaurants or temples, we seem to leave our standards of cleanliness behind in our homes. How can a culture that claims to be so nuanced and sublime in spirituality be so apathetic towards a civic sense in general and public cleanliness in particular?

Dear Friend,

“The indifference of the railway authorities to the comforts of the third class passengers, combined with the dirty and inconsiderate habits of the passengers themselves, makes third class travelling a trial for a passenger of cleanly ways. These unpleasant habits commonly include throwing of rubbish on the floor of the compartment, smoking at all hours and in all places, betel and tobacco chewing, converting of the whole carriage into a spittoon, shouting and yelling, and using foul language, regardless of the convenience or comfort of fellow passengers. I have noticed little difference between my experience of the third class travelling in 1902 and that of my unbroken third class tours from 1915 to 1919.” (M. K. Gandhi)

Were Gandhiji alive today, some 100 years after first experiencing the “inconsiderate habits” of his fellow travelers in the Indian Railways, he would sadly see that little has changed.

Perhaps this is a cultural “we versus me” problem. The Japanese live in very dense cities, but they do not succumb to inconsiderate public behavior; this is due, in part, to their belief that they collectively share their ecosystem and litterbugs are socially ostracized. Americans are much more individualist, but they have been socialized by strong advertising campaigns and stiff legislation not to spoil their surroundings. Indians are a blend of we and me, practicing a kind of situational ethics: indifferent to public spaces while meticulously maintaining clean homes.

It seems to me that unless we encourage social disapproval or legal fines for the “me Indians,” members of and from the subcontinent will continue to succumb to a lowest common denominator approach to the public commons.

That said, both the question and answer in this Satyalogue run the risk of stereotyping over a billion people. While each of us might want to look in the mirror and assess our own civic-mindfulness, we are well-served in not suggesting that this “madness” is inherently characteristic of Indians.

[Dr. Rajesh C. Oza serves as a consultant to organizations and individuals requiring change leadership. We invite questions for consideration in the PMG column at raj.oza@sbcglobal.net.]


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